Jonathan Galassi’s Muse opens with a warning that seems more precious than sincere: “This is a love story… (but) when I say this is a love story, I’m telling you it’s not entirely a happy story… proceed with caution.” It’s a warning that’s hard to take seriously, considering the preface it closes out: an open-hearted paean to “the good old days” — a golden age of publishing where “men were men” and “women were women” and the “cult of the printed word” flourished – but it’s one the discerning reader might do well to heed. Not because Muse is a novel of harsh emotional truths and uncompromising power, nor because it couches what insight it has in a complex narrative or style. Far from it. Muse is a difficult read because it’s a slog, a mushy dedication from a devotee of the literary establishment to his past that is so mired in self-importance and self-satisfaction it can only manage to alienate the same readers it’s trying to convert.
Some concessions are made to the skeptical reader, of course. Lip-service is paid to the idea that the cultured elite and their milieu are reprehensible. Much is made in particular of Paul, the main character, a literary editor so ill-defined and so ghostly he seems only to serve as a stand-in for Galassi, and his disdain for other publishers, likening these “Lords of Culture” as he does to “pigs in shit… master parasites sitting on top of (a) swarming dunghill.” A passage near the climax, where Paul derides authors and publishers both, dismissing their “precious feelings” and “demand to be memorialized” as “intolerable” makes it seem as if no one is safe, but it’s a con.
For all the bile Galassi’s mouthpiece spews about the same culture he’s made his living in and by, he finally has to acknowledge that “(the publishers) had been true to their writers’ gifts… their authors were their gods, despite their high-handed behavior, egomania, and competitiveness. In the end, it had been all about them.” The writers, in turn, created the culture; they are, in fact, the gods who make the world. It’s no accident that Ida Perkins, the fictional poetic wunderkind at the heart of the titles names her final collection – one that’s so powerful and well-loved it inspires a renaissance of poetry – Mnemosyne after the goddess of memory and mother of the Muses or that the Amazon.com proxy is named Medusa or that the old-guard of the literary world are so often referred to as “heroes”.
This is a story not about love but worship, a story about the greatness of a classical world (or at least of the classical literary golden age that Galassi caught the tail-end of) that casts its conflicts with the ugliness of the modern digital world in a mythological light with the hopes that this might disguise how banal its concerns really are.
But like most acts of worship, the mystic symbolism and reverence serve only to disguise the dearth of real ideas. Though there is a central plot about a mysterious collection of journals, Ida Perkin’s last book of poems and a salacious literary affair that is said to threaten the very fabric of the literary establishment, it’s a plot of so little consequence that it doesn’t even begin for 80 pages. Instead, the author devotes that time to filling out backstories by an endless precession of lists and descriptions. Characters are never given a chance to actually interact with each other and nothing takes place in any kind of present moment. Dialogue is spare; most character interactions consist of nothing more than a pithy summary of what passed between the concerned parties.
Character defining moments, such as Paul’s first encounter with the poetry of Ida Perkins, an event said to motivate the novel’s every action, are framed off-handedly. What is delivered instead are interminable descriptions of people – of “Pepita Erskine, the taboo-smashing fire-brand African American critic and novelist”, of “portly Paddy Femor, an exceptionally gifted editor whose perfectionism made it nearly impossible for him to let go of manuscripts”, of W.A. Dwiggins, “the genius behind Knopf’s magisterial bindings and settings” – who never actually act within the story and recollections of the irrelevant encounters between them that occur in some hazy non-time.
While it might be argued that this lends everything a kind of mythological sheen – because none of the people or events seem to exist in a particular time they might, in fact, be said to exist at all times – and works to contrast these legendary people and events with the kind of frivolous progress represented by Medusa and Paul’s later lover Rufus, an employee at Medusa, the effect is never so grand. Rather than timeless they seem undefined.
As if overcompensating, Galassi delivers list after list after list of florid descriptions (poems are “lapidary… obsidian”, Venice a “Platonic beehive”, benevolence “allegro”; publishing magnate Sterling Wainwright’s living room is decorated with “elegant old Turkmen carpets (and) drawings by Kadinsky and Max Ernst… and a waist-high soaring Brancusi marble nude”), unaware that this over-detailed rendering of the world only emphasizes his mistakes. In attempting to give shape and substance to the world he instead packs it so full that it bursts at the seams while the characters disappear under piles of gaudy junk and hollow abstractions.
Or perhaps it’s not so much that they disappear; perhaps they are intentionally buried. As frustrating as the interminable passages of background and stage-setting are, they at least demonstrate something of Galassi’s cultural knowledge and of his first-hand experience as a member of the literary establishment (no doubt his history in the publishing world and his status as the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux lends the book much of its marketing appeal). There’s at least a touch of the poetry he once made his name by in these descriptions, an ear for something more exciting than the pedestrian dialogue and lazy characterization that mars every scene in the novel.
Galassi seems constitutionally incapable of defining his characters by actions. If Paul is the toast of the literary world, a man in whom Ida Perkins recognizes “good judgment”, whom publishing luminary Homer Stern can trust to run one of the major literary publishing houses, it’s entirely by accident. When he speaks it’s with a syntax so wooden it would make Pinocchio cringe. “It was one of the extraordinary afternoons of my life, Sterling. We discussed the notebooks, as I told you, and a thousand other things. I learned an enormous amount,” would be a rotten way to describe dinner with the family, let alone an intimate evening with the most celebrated literary icon of a generation and one’s personal hero; that Paul is so banal despite being so lettered and so doddering he could cause the death of one of his mentors through indecision and botched diplomacy marks him a dweeb, not a darling.
An attempt is made to give him something of an internal conflict – a bit about how he feels the inadequacy of his own loveless life when he measures it against the fascinating lives of his heroes and his gods – but it’s all in the briefest of asides scattered throughout the book without any design. Paul will start a relationship with a man in one line and end it the very next; Galassi will note how lonely he is in one paragraph and not mention it again for another hundred pages. Like the rest of the characters, like the rest of the plot, it’s all superfluous. It doesn’t seem accidental that conflicts will spring up one page – how will Paul get Ida’s last manuscript published if it would break Sterling’s heart? How will he ever find forgiveness for his betrayal of Homer? Is the classic literary culture doomed to be subsumed by the distractions of the digital age? – only for the story to solve them in a single line. No drama, no acted conflict, only a series of imaginary hurdles that are removed as soon as they’re placed on the track.
Obstacles are difficult to overcome, after all, and demand involvement from the reader as well as from the characters; challenge always carry with it risk, and a challenging narrative risks alienating its audience. It risks their attention, it risks their disdain and critical censure, it risks their identifying the imperfections that might preclude simple worship but which allows for the kind of emotional investment and identification necessary for love, a reality Galassi acknowledges with his opening. A reality he seems unwilling to risk. While he might pretend that his characters are flawed, that the literary world they hail from is no Olympus and that, after the coming “digital publishing and cultural upheaval” he will “love it… maybe more than before” his inability to submit this world – and his own writing, by which he represents this world – to sustained scrutiny reveals him as the eternal supplicant.
Is it any coincidence that, like The Great Gatsby, the novel ends with a reflection on swelling waves and changing times? Are the parallels between with James’ “The Aspern Papers” merely accidental? There’s nothing in the gently ribbing satire, disguised gossip, frequent allusions overwrought writing and breezy plot of Muse to inspire, only to affirm the devotion of the literati who so faithfully occupied that world.